Consuming the Other: Cannibals and Vampires in Carmen Boullosa's Fiction

Article excerpt

As old as the rumored existence of cannibalistic practices is the fascination with mankind's consumption of fellow human beings. The term cannibal was coined by Christopher Columbus when native guides on his voyage to the "New World" told him stories of tribes that fed on human flesh. In 1979 William Arens published a study called The Man-Eating Myth: Anthropology and Anthropophagy, in which he expressed concern over the field of anthropology's apparent need for the existence of cannibalism in order to form itself as a valid discipline. His study produced an uproar among anthropologists, who quickly wrote responses focused on proving the existence of cannibalism despite Arens' implications, and thus ironically confirmed Arens' argument--we need cannibals. This need is firmly rooted in the human psyche, as evidenced by cannibalism's consistent appearance in literature, whether in literal or metaphorical form. In the years that followed the discovery of the Americas, the cannibal was re-interpreted and re-presented with varying degrees of sympathy or condemnation, depending on the purpose behind each portrayal of his "reality." Whether anthropophagy occurs by necessity or from desire, through hatred or through ritual, in an act of vengeance or in an act of savagery, the possible motivations for such behavior are outnumbered only by the texts that explore them. The appearance of cannibalism in three works by contemporary Mexican writer Carmen Boullosa reminds us that the cannibal is just as much a part of human nature as it is of history.

In his book Cannibalism: from sacrifice to survival, psychologist Hans Askenasy considers the various reasons why a person would want to consume another person. Besides the obvious reason--hunger--there are a slew of other possible "motivational factors" for cannibalism. In a chapter entitled "Punishment, Indifference, and Unification," Askenasy provides three factors that eerily coincide with separate instances of cannibalism in three different narrative works of Carmen Boullosa. While these three forms of cannibalism (namely, punitive, unitive, and profane cannibalism) appear neatly categorized in Askenasy's work, applying them to Boullosa's characters serves merely as a departure point for an exploration of acts of consumption that seem to result from both a psychological and a physical need to devour the Other. Set in the past, present and future, respectively, Boullosa's Son vacas, somos puercos, Isabel, and Cielos de la tierra all involve bizarre cases of cannibalism that serve to underscore the author's own concerns regarding the destructive impulses behind human behavior.

In Son vacas, somos puercos, set in the Caribbean of colonial times, the protagonist Smeeks serves as ship's surgeon under the tyrannical rule of a French pirate named L'Olonnais, or "Nau." While Smeeks is the primary narrator of the novel, at different moments in the text he cedes narration to others, as in the extraordinary case of Nau's death. Nau narrates his own demise as he is captured and eaten alive by cannibals. It seems a just end for a man who wreaked havoc on colonial society, cruelly abusing both natives and colonists alike. The Indians' cannibalism can be attributed to revenge rather than hunger, as their leader delivers a speech about avenging the deaths of the tribe's loved ones. This punitive cannibalism is preceded by a ritual in which the women of the tribe abuse Nau, tying him to a hammock to force themselves on him before later cutting off his eyelashes and slapping him. The misogynistic pirate continues to blame the female sex for his current situation, even though he isn't sure exactly how they are to blame. He watches as the children devour parts of his body, until the loss of blood causes him to lose consciousness.

Nau's defiance in the face of the tribal women exemplifies the general sense of scorn for the female sex felt among the European pirates, who call themselves free "pigs" as opposed to the domesticated "cows" that marry, settle, and pay tribute to the crowns of Europe. …

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